Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.12.24 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.12.24

Margaret Malamud, African Americans and the Classics: Antiquity, Abolition and Activism. Library of classical studies, 12.   London:  I. B. Tauris Publishers, 2016.  Pp. xiii, 290.  ISBN 9781784534950.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Ronald Charles, Saint Francis Xavier University (

This book is an important contribution to the study of classical reception and the place of Classics in American history. The short introduction to the volume is helpful in laying down Malamud’s central argument and purpose: to demonstrate the role that knowledge of the Classics played in the fight for social and economic emancipation of blacks in American history. The author shows how classical texts, tropes, and images were used to keep blacks in slavery, and how many African Americans studied the ancient languages and classical texts to speak back, to write back, and to challenge deeply seated injustices and prejudices against them.

The first chapter (“Fighting for Classics”) presents a fascinating history and analysis of “why free African Americans wanted a classical education and the battles they fought to acquire one from the late eighteenth century through the early twentieth century” (5). The fight for the opportunity of receiving a classical education by African Americans was engaged on two fronts: first, to disprove the ridiculous idea held by many (e.g., David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, and the infamous nineteenth-century American senator John C. Calhoun) of the intellectual inferiority of blacks as incapable of learning ancient languages; second, to acquire the necessary knowledge of Latin, Greek, and ancient history to be admitted to colleges, seminaries, and professional schools. Without the Classics one’s future was in jeopardy, and fighting to have a classical education became a constant struggle many African Americans felt they needed to engage in. An exemplary figure who defied these misconceptions was William Sanders Scarborough (1852-1956), a former slave, who became a brilliant philologist. Scarborough was the first black member of the American Philological Association (now called Society for Classical Studies), as well as the Modern Language Association (17).”1 The author could have made that clearer instead of stating he was “one of the first African American members of the American Philological Association” (17).

This chapter is filled with stories of perseverance of various African Americans determined to have a classical education in order to advance in their lives, in spite of the rejection and ridicule to which they were subjected. The description of James McCune Smith is very moving: “He graduated with honours from the African Free School and went to work as an apprentice to a blacksmith to earn a living, working six days a week, studying Latin and Greek in the evenings and all day Sunday. His friend Henry Highland Garnet vividly described him as ‘at a forge with the bellows in one hand and a Latin grammar in the other’” (25). He went to the University of Glasgow in 1832, where he earned his B.A. (1835), M.A. (1836), and M.D. (1837). The chapter is fascinating in highlighting the differences and discussions regarding education among black leaders of the nineteenth century: Booker T. Washington, for example, advocated for technical/manual skills as readiness for available jobs, whereas Scarborough, Du Bois, and many others argued that a classical education was relevant for all, regardless of race and social class.

Chapter 2 (“Figuring Classical Resistance”) demonstrates how classical imagery, figures, metaphors, and rhetoric were used by various groups to conceptualize the place of African Americans in the broader landscape of American history. The chapter delves into the story of the Amistad (the African slave-trading ship that was seized off Long Island in 1839), to illustrate how resistance in the classical past was used to advocate for the rights of these slaves to return to Sierra Leone, where they had been kidnapped and sold by Spanish slavers. The Northern abolitionists used classical heroes as models of resistance to tyranny, and they regarded Sengbe Pieh (Joseph Cinqué), who was the leader of the slaves, as a modern hero willing to die for his liberty. The portrait of Pieh shows him wearing a traditional Mende dress—“a white cloth draped his body leaving his right arm and shoulder bare, while in one hand he holds a spear, a symbol of leadership” (55). Malamud should have been more careful in concurring with a comment made by Marcus Rediker that the painting might evoke the African leader as wearing a toga. Romans did not reveal naked shoulders, and the idea that “the white toga suggested that Cinqué’s willingness to fight to the death for liberty” (55) is not accurate.2 Furthermore, the author indicates that Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743-1803), who was instrumental as a leader in the fight of Haiti against imperial powers, was viewed as an African Spartacus and an inspiration to many African Americans in their fight for freedom and equality. Malamud is correct to note the important role Toussaint played in the Haitian revolution. I question, however, the qualification that Haiti’s successful revolution was “the first successful slave revolt on the French colony of Saint- Domingue” (59). It is important to point out that the Haitian revolution was, and remains, the most successful slave revolution in history, and the first abolition of slavery in an important slave society. And L’Ouverture won, whereas Spartacus failed.

Malamud shows, convincingly, how whites celebrated model heroes of antiquity and claimed them as models for themselves, and how love of freedom was a white prerogative not applicable to black slaves. Proponents of slavery conceived traits like courage and manliness far differently from blacks and abolitionists who used images episodes, and figures from the classical past in their fight for emancipation. The rest of the chapter touches on the celebration and support of the modern Greek revolution by many white Americans; on identification of the model of Greek beauty as an aesthetic ideal; and on the use of Greek and Roman rhetoric by both supporters of slavery and abolitionists to argue their cases. Among the most effective users of rhetoric to achieve abolition, of course, was the former slave and orator par excellence, Frederick Douglass, who achieved great prominence as an African American leader.

Chapter 3 (“Ancient and Modern Slavery”) analyzes the ways in which references to ancient slavery played a role in the debates over the place of slavery in antebellum America. On the one hand, pro-slavery advocates argued that Greece and Rome flourished because free citizens could use their time to think, to participate in politics, to enjoy art, and to do productive work, instead of engaging in menial and repetitive labor deemed worthy of slaves. On the other hand, the abolitionists and black intellectuals argued that the ancient civilizations declined and died because of slavery, which clouded the humanity of the ancients. The chapter ends by showing how political figures in contemporary America still have to deal with references to antiquity and its legacy. As Malamud states, “References to Antiquity in debates over slavery and politics remain fiercely contested; their meaning shifts in accordance with the ideological and political concerns of their producers” (146). This fascinating chapter illuminates the fraught use and abuse of the classical past in contemporary political debates and monuments.3

Chapter 4 (“Constructing History”) explores how African Americans confronted the racialized picture of their past: first, by claiming the ancient Egyptians as ancestors and second, by reworking images and tropes of the past to voice their struggles, past and present. On the one hand, the Egyptian pyramids, testify to the greatness of an ancient African civilization and connects racially modern Africans to ancient Egyptians (159-165). Such connections show that the claims of African racial inferiority cannot hold. On the other hand, the “return to Egypt” was also seen as problematic by many African Americans. Egypt epitomizes the land of slavery, and Pharaoh the despot is akin to white slaveholders. Two Egypts were then envisaged: the Egypt of powerful black rulers with a great civilization, and the Egypt of Hebrew bondage, which symbolized African slaves longing to go to Canaan. Sojourner Truth's biographical anecdote (1797-1883) exemplifies this latter understanding: “when I left the house of bondage, I left everything behind, I wasn’t going to keep nothing of Egypt on me” (166). African Americans also negotiated the past by deconstructing and reframing figures of the ancient world. Cleopatra, for example, is represented as a black African woman; themes from ancient mythologies are used to speak about issues confronted by contemporary African Americans. African-American intellectuals and artists of the early twentieth century began to be interested in modern Africa, and in the history of Africa beyond the mythical Egypt or Ethiopia. African Americans sought to understand themselves not solely from a Western, European frame, but from the larger canvas of African and global history.

The book ends with an “Afterword” that reflects on the trajectory of African Americans and the classical world, especially in African American Classical reception in the twentieth and early twenty-first century. In novels, plays, sculptures, and even movies, the author shows how various African Americans have engaged with the classical texts. The point of these different works is not to place blackness in Graeco-Roman Antiquity but to meditate and navigate as human beings what Classics and classicism could look like beyond color in a “‘De-Segregated Republic of Letters’” (199).

In conclusion, I have a few corrections, which should in no way undervalue the scholarly contribution of this volume. The author could have pointed out on page 10 that we have no proof that Calhoun ever said that “learning Greek inducted one into the heart of Western civilization.” Under the picture of W.S. Scarborough on page 18, fig. 1.3, the author puts “ca. 1913.” It is not 1913 but closer to 1908 when Scarborough became president of Wilberforce University (1908-1920). The author should have been more careful about her use of a certain “P.S. Twister” on page 48, who allegedly was a journalist with the Chicago Conservator. “Twister” is not a real person. It was a penname for a “press bureau” in Washington DC. Harrison J. Pinkett (1882-1960) was one of the journalists of the bureau. I have noticed only a few typos: On page 57, at the bottom of the page, one should read: “a Philadelphia abolitionist newspaper, exposing the real reason why the painting was not shown,” instead of “…exposing the real reason the painting why…” On page 205, note 27, the name of William Sanders Scarborough is misspelled. On page 216, note 23, the “u” is missing in the name of Toussaint L’Ouverture.

In spite of these few editorial infelicities, this book is a fascinating read and will be of interest to anyone interested in classical studies, classical reception, African American history, and the history of race relations in the United States of America. The book is well written, and the research is solid. It should be noted, however, that this book is a stepping-stone to the many scholarly investigations that still need to be done.


1.   See Michele Valerie Ronnick, whose contribution to Classics has brought to light the essential and rare works of Scarborough: The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship, edited, introduced and annotated (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005) and The Works of William Sanders Scarborough: Black Classicist and Race Leader, edited, introduced, annotated (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
2.   The author misidentifies the dress as a Roman toga instead of a Mende ceremonial dress. She agrees with Rediker’s comment that “viewers of the painting might see the African leader as wearing a toga, like a virtuous Roman republican citizen, or as Moses, staff in hand, having led his compatriots back to the Promised land.” See Marcus Rediker, The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (New York: Viking, 2012), 174-5.
3.   For an additional perspective see J. Albert Harrill, "The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Interpretation and Christian Moral Debate," in Religion and American Culture 10 (2000): 149-86.

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